The pebble road made a crunching sound under Fu Lan’s feet as he carried Qi Yin through the fence. There were towering trees overhead, their leaves rustling and fluttering, like pigeons flapping their wings. Fu Lan returned to the house and placed Qi Yin on the bed. With a flick of his finger, the talisman on the wall dimmed slightly, leaving only a warm orange glow.
This child fell asleep while listening to the story, so Fu Lan had to carry him back. A hazy halo from the light softened his features. With his eyes closed, he looked exhausted and peaceful. Fu Lan squatted by the bed and looked at Qi Yin. Being separated for nearly thirteen years made it hard for mortals to remember, especially childhood memories. Although Qi Yin used to call him “brother” and cry in his arms when he was young, he couldn’t remember any of it now. Fu Lan gazed at him quietly, feeling a bit dejected.
Qi Yin seemed to be dreaming of something and furrowed his brows slightly. He murmured softly, “Brother…”
Fu Lan was taken aback.
The black cat jumped to Qi Yin’s pillow and said, “Fool, the kid is dreaming about you.”
Fu Lan pushed Qi Yin’s hair behind his ear and nodded gently.
The little pup dreamed of his big brother.
The sound of a clock echoed through the mountains and startled a group of white cranes, causing them to fly away screeching.
Qi Yin yawned and got out of bed, washing his face and rinsing his mouth in the yard. They didn’t have a basin or towels, so they had to make do with a wooden bucket, which was also old and had a missing plank. Other houses were empty, and the mud road was quiet on both sides. Some senior brothers forgot to close their doors, and one could vaguely see pots and bowls inside. After a while, Qi Yin remembered they had an early class. He and Fu Lan had just arrived and had to wait two more days before joining everyone in class.
Yawning, they walked down the mountain to the vegetable garden for breakfast, with Fu Lan carrying the cat in front. The lazy cat refused to walk when the road was a bit longer and wanted Fu Lan to carry it. Today, it was carried on the left shoulder, and tomorrow it would be on the right. According to this chubby cat, it was to prevent Fu Lan from developing uneven shoulders.
After half an hour of walking, they finally arrived at the vegetable garden. It was a square plot with a row of white and tender napa cabbages. It was not the season yet, but they had grown big and white, with dew rolling on their jade-like stems. They could be harvested now.
Although it was called a kitchen, there was no one inside, only a stove and a few greasy square tables. It seemed that they had to cook their own food. Fu Lan rolled up his sleeves, picked up a big cabbage, and brought it to the stove. He washed the rice, washed the vegetables, and cut them. It was not difficult. Qi Yin sat on a stool. It was the first time that he didn’t have to cook, just open his mouth and wait for food. He felt a little uncomfortable.
He didn’t remember any of the things that Fu Lan talked about last night. He was too young at that time. He didn’t even remember his mother, let alone these two demons.
Since he arrived at his aunt’s house, he had never returned to Wu Jiang. He had never seen his old acquaintances, and no one told him about his mother’s situation in Wu Jiang. He had no way to verify whether what Fu Lan said was true or false. Seeing Fu Lan’s expression and tone, he didn’t seem to be lying. But after Fu Lan went back to southern Xin Jiang, his mother moved around and even went to his aunt for shelter. She put the glass beads on Qi Yin to hide his aura, clearly hiding from these two demons.
He remembered that his aunt had mentioned something about his mother, mostly making fun of her eccentric behavior. She said that his mother would block the door with a box, a cage, or a table before going to bed every night. She would ask the a Daoist to draw talismans all over the walls, and she would take Qi Yin wherever she went. Qi Yin followed his mother around doing odd jobs.
“New here?” Suddenly a person came in at the door. He was wearing a light blue Daoist robe with patches all over it. His hair was messy like a weed, his face was dark, and there was a scar on his face that ran from his left eyebrow to his right cheek. If the cut were any deeper, his entire head would be split in half.
The person who stayed in the vegetable garden was undoubtedly the Elder of Precepts, Ye Qing Ming. Qi Yin was about to salute, but Qing Ming stopped him and said, “Don’t salute me. I’ll tell you the truth. Wu Fang Mountain just sent me an invitation letter to come and give a lecture a few days ago. If it weren’t for your sect leader hanging outside my door asking for help, I would have left already.” He put his hand in his sleeve and sat opposite Qi Yin. “So, when the sect leader is gone, I’ll go to Wu Fang Mountain immediately. I’m not interested in knowing who you are, and you don’t have to call me elder. Just treat me as a passerby.”
Qi Yin: “…”
After he finished speaking, he turned to Fu Lan and said, “Pretty boy, make me one too. You can treat it as respecting the elderly.”
Fu Lan obediently turned around to pick another cabbage.
Ye Qing Ming plucked a blade of grass and teased the black cat. “You two boys were tricked, right? Why do you want to cultivate the Daoist way when you can live as ordinary people?”
“Um, what was that phrase again? ‘Slaying demons and monsters, holding a sword to uphold justice.'” Qi Yin scratched his head, his eyes wandering nervously.
Ye Qing Ming laughed and said, “Forget it. Before the Feng Huan Mountain incident, there were ten disciples. Five became swindlers, tricking, deceiving, and kidnapping people in the martial world. Three returned home to engage in business and farming, and one was reduced to begging on the streets for a living.”
“What about the last one?” Qi Yin asked.
“He was eaten by a demon during a demon-slaying mission.”
Qi Yin: “…”
Ye Qing Ming grabbed Qi Yin’s arm and started massaging it, from the shoulder down to the finger bones. Qi Yin was startled and wondered if this senior was also a cutsleeve (1). He tried to pull his arm away, but Ye Qing Ming was too strong, squeezing his finger bones and causing him to grimace in pain.
After massaging for a while, Ye Qing Ming shook his head and said, “Your bone structure is mediocre, and your meridians are narrow. With your condition, it may take you a hundred and eight years to achieve anything in cultivation. But even then, you still need to survive until that age.”
Qi Yin rubbed his arm and said gloomily, “Were you feeling my bones just now?”
Ye Qing Ming nodded.
“Well, if I’m mediocre, then I’m mediocre. I’ll cultivate for fun, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just cheat and swindle people,” Qi Yin said lightly.
He had never held high hopes for himself and was satisfied as long as he had a roof over his head. It seemed that fate was against him, as his father was said to be a rare swordsmanship genius in Wu Fang Mountain. He could read scriptures at five, master talismans at seven, and fly with his sword at ten. It appeared that his father’s talent had not been passed on to him.
Ye Qing Ming peeked into the pot that Fu Lan was cooking, frowned, and said, “Why are you making porridge? We don’t have any kids here.”
Fu Lan scooped the porridge into a bowl and said, “Yes, we do. Xiao Yin.”
“Who’s Xiao Yin?”
Qi Yin raised his hand and said, “Me.”
Ye Qing Ming looked surprised and said, “You’re a strong young man!”
After finishing breakfast, they had to go to the mountaintop to pay respects to their master. This routine was called “Morning and Evening Meditation,” and they had to do it every day. Qi Yin estimated that the other senior brothers ignored this rule, as he had never seen anyone come to pay their respects to Ye Qing Ming. However, since they were new, it was better to follow the rules.
When they arrived, the fat man was still asleep, and they waited at the door for a full hour before being allowed in. Sect Leader Qing Shi was still sitting on the wicker chair, his face chubby, with a slight blush on his cheeks, like the big-bellied Buddha in a temple. He took a sip of tea as usual and picked his teeth with a piece of wicker from the back of the chair; the spot where he picked was almost bald.
Three identical young Daoist disciples stood beside him, serving him with towels and combs, holding tea bowls and looking like paper dolls from a funeral procession with their red lips and white teeth. Qi Yin felt that the three of them were strange and couldn’t help but take a few more glances. Last time he came, there were only two of them, and he thought they were twins, but he didn’t expect them to be triplets.
Fu Lan and Qi Yin greeted them. Qing Shi smiled and said, “You’ve come with good intentions. Your senior brothers and sisters haven’t come to greet us in almost three years.” He sighed. “Children grow up and don’t listen to their mothers.”
Qi Yin silently thought, “Master, you are a man.”
Yun Zhi entered through the side door, holding a broom and a rake. He handed them to Qi Yin and Fu Lan, respectively. Qi Yin looked bewildered holding the broom, wondering if he was supposed to sweep the floor, and Fu Lan was supposed to rake the vegetable garden?
“In two days, you will be attending classes with your senior brothers and sisters. These are the tools you need for your sword control class,” Qing Shi said.
“Um, well…” Qi Yin was full of doubts and asked, “Don’t we need a sword for sword control? How do we use this thing?”
“Young apprentice, you are mistaken.” Qing Shi sat upright and suddenly showed an unusual seriousness. “The way of the sword lies in cultivating the sword mind and understanding the sword intent. If you have the sword mind and sword intent, then every blade of grass, every tree, every brick, and every stone can become a sword. Why be limited to a mere three feet of ordinary iron?”
Is it really not because they can’t afford to buy swords? Qi Yin wondered.
Qi Yin hesitated for a moment and asked, “Master, how long does it take to learn sword control? Elder Ye Qing Ming said my aptitude is not very good. Will it take me a long time to learn?”
“Your aptitude is not good?” Qing Shi twirled his beard and widened his eyes. “Young apprentice, don’t belittle yourself. You have a rare and exceptional talent for cultivating the sword. Sword control is just the beginning. With your aptitude, you will make progress within a few months.”
“Really…” Qi Yin didn’t quite believe it. “Then when can I become a master of the Dao?”
“Young apprentice, don’t be impatient.” Qing Shi took off his hat, revealing his shiny bald head. “When you reach my level, you will be one of the most outstanding figures among the Four Immortal Mountains.”
“Master is right.” Yun Zhi patted Qi Yin’s shoulder and said, “A few years ago, I went to a grand meeting of the Four Immortal Mountains and saw that all the elders were bald. It seems that if you want to reach the summit, you must first be bald!”
“Can I still go back to Wu Tang now?” Qi Yin pursed his lips. “Yun Zhi, you said you would send me with your sword before.”
“Of course you can.” Yun Zhi grinned and extended his gloved hand. “The travel expenses are ten taels of silver. No bargaining, please.”
“By the way.” Qing Shi waved his hand and a book flew out of the bookshelf and landed in Fu Lan’s arms. “Xiao Lan, as a demon who has turned from evil to good, you are precious. This book, the Dao De Ching (2), is a gift for you. Recite it three times a day; it will be beneficial to your cultivation.”
Fu Lan thanked him, and they both left.
The sun was shining brightly, and Qi Yin stood in the courtyard looking depressed. That fat guy was full of nonsense, and he looked like a swindler. His words were confusing, and he couldn’t tell which ones were true or false. Yun Zhi was just a little liar, so he couldn’t be trusted. He looked down at the broken broom in his arms and felt even more hopeless about his future.
Fu Lan had been practicing demon cultivation for so long, and he should be knowledgeable. Qi Yin asked, “Dai Ge, do you think it’s reasonable for our master to ask us to use brooms to practice swordsmanship?”
Fu Lan nodded.
“Well, it seems he wasn’t lying. Everything can be a sword, and that makes sense.” Qi Yin scratched his head. “Since he wasn’t lying, then that means I have good aptitude, right?”
Fu Lan shook his head and said, “Average aptitude.”
Qi Yin: “…”
The black cat yawned and spoke up, “That fat guy probably thought you lacked confidence, so he told a little lie to encourage you. Kid, swordsmanship depends a lot on talent. Diligence can only make up for some shortcomings. Do you want to consider practicing demonic cultivation? Just swallow a few demons and eat a few children, and you’ll immediately become powerful. Hahaha.”
“Stop it, I’ll never practice demonic cultivation.”
Qi Yin struggled for a while. Although he had a voice in his heart telling him to accept his fate, a small hope emerged. He asked again, “If I eat an elixir that can wash my meridians and bones, can it help me make progress?”
The black cat shook his head. “Those kinds of elixirs are very expensive. You won’t be able to afford them even if you sold yourself and the fool together.”
Sighing, Qi Yin realized that it all came down to not having enough money.
1. Cutsleeve – a term describing homosexuals in China. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), there was an emperor who fell in love with one of his male advisors named Dong Xian. One day, while Dong Xian was resting his head on the emperor’s sleeve, the emperor had to leave for a meeting but didn’t want to disturb his beloved advisor’s sleep. So, he cut off his own sleeve with a knife to leave Dong Xian undisturbed.
2. Dao De Ching – a classic Chinese text written by Lao Tzu. It discusses various themes such as the nature of the universe, the concept of the Dao (or the Way), the balance of opposites, the role of the individual in society, and the nature of leadership.